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Trans-Serengeti Balloon Safari

Exploring the Uncharted: The World's First Serengeti Balloon Safari Expedition



Africa Specialist
Published on

22 Nov 2023

Updated on

02 Jan 2024

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‘Slow travel’ is currently a real buzzword in the travel industry. If this trip didn’t hit that nail firmly on the head then I am not sure what trip could do it better. This was a 6-night trip that offered 4 days of ballooning, walking and a bit of driving in the Serengeti, bookended by nights in Arusha.

The idea, as the trip name would suggest, was to do what no-one had done before and fly by hot air balloon across the Serengeti from the eastern boundary of the National Park to the Western Boundary – effectively landing on the shores of Lake Victoria.

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Getting ready for take off

The Genesis of the Idea:

The concept emerged during an evening dinner conversation with John Corse, the Managing Director of Serengeti Balloon Safaris. He recounted a tale from years ago when the company's owner had flown in the western corridor, leaving an indelible mark on the local villagers who had never witnessed such a spectacle. Inspired by this, Captain Abeid, the most skilled pilot in the Serengeti, suggested the extraordinary idea of landing at the same village after crossing the entire park—an experience the villagers hadn't encountered in nearly 30 years. Thus, the seed of a ground-breaking expedition was planted.

And we thought why not put it out there to some clients, what could possibly go wrong? So, we approached our friends at the private members club The Ned to see if this was something their members would be into. It very much was.

Logistically to make it work we needed to partner the balloon company ‘Serengeti Balloon Safaris’ with a safari operator on the ground who could cope with moving comfortable camps as well as offering the expertise in walking with expert guides, Wayo Wilderness were the obvious choice with their ability to walk in parts of the park that very few, if any, other operators are able to do. The plan would be to fly in the balloon for 2 hours (normal balloon trips are 45-60 minutes depending on the wind) and then after landing we would walk or drive as normal and possibly interact with local conservation projects, thereby the guests would get the experience of seeing the width of the Serengeti by air and also see its different ecosystems by foot and by vehicle. We would follow this pattern over the course of the 4 days and finish with tea and medals by the lake. Well, that was the plan and we had 5 pioneering guests who were going to try to accomplish this with us. I was also lucky enough to elbow my way onto the trip and below is my account of how it went.

Balloon Safari Route Map
Image: Flight route across the Serengeti. Locations: Gol Kopjes – Seronera – Musabi Plains - Kirawira - Lake Victoria

Day 1 – Rain, Rides, and Relentless Resilience

Upon landing at Kilimanjaro International Airport, Arusha is just an hour's drive away. Our overnight stay was arranged at Rivertree's Country Lodge, strategically positioned halfway between the airport and the town. Navigating through the usual immigration chaos, with visa queues ebbing and flowing, I swiftly made my way through. I was promptly greeted by Angel and Ramadan, who were tasked with driving me to the lodge.

As we traversed the terrain, the quintessentially British topic of weather dominated our conversation. They shared the urgent need for rain due to the prevailing dry conditions. This year was anticipated to be an El Nino year, promising biblical rains that, unfortunately, never arrived. In a somewhat British fashion, a silent plea was sent upstairs, urging the rain to hold off for just another week. Predictably, the man upstairs had other plans, and as we pulled into the hotel, raindrops began to patter on the windscreen.

In the brief span from exiting the vehicle to reaching the reception, I found myself thoroughly drenched. Oh dear.

Safari showers bring challenges, turning the joy of wildlife viewing into a wet and elusive affair. Animals seek refuge under thick bushes, making spotting them both arduous and uncomfortable. Picture this: the iconic Serengeti, its vast plains overshadowed by dark skies, heavy clouds, and rain-soaked lions. Not the safari dreams are made of.

Now, consider the implications for our hot air balloon adventure. If a mere gust of wind can ground our flight, what about rain? It's a resounding no-no, right? A passing shower, we hope? Preferably more like a brief interlude!

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Wayo Camp set up
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Pre-flight Photo

Day 2 – Arusha to The Serengeti

No such luck! Rain fell throughout the night, transforming my bathroom into a miniature flood zone by morning. Stay optimistic, I told myself; perhaps it would clear. Miraculously, it did. After a convivial Tanzanian breakfast omelette, we made our way to Arusha Airport, ready for a light aircraft journey to the Seronera Airstrip. Surprisingly, the sun greeted us upon arrival.

Our guide Zacky awaited, ushering us into our vehicle for the journey. Zacky estimated an hour and a half to reach our camp near the eastern boundary. What he hadn't factored in was that four out of five guests were Africa and safari novices. Three hours and numerous stops later, we finally arrived at camp, hungry but exhilarated from spotting elephants, lions on a kill, hippos, antelope, impala, and buffalo. Spirits soared during lunch and the camp safety briefing, prepping us for an afternoon walk led by head guide Freddy.

Under clear skies, our inaugural walk along a riverbed treated us to distant views of buffalo and elephants, complemented by captivating close encounters with various bird species.

Dinner at the camp, Wayo's semi-permanent walking camp, was a feast, with only a minor hiccup— a noticeable absence of white rum, a favourite among the guests. Early to bed, the spacious tented rooms with ensuite bathrooms and bucket showers ensured a comfortable rest for all. Tomorrow held an early start, with wake-up calls set for 04:00. As the lions' roars subsided and I settled in, the familiar sound of rain on canvas accompanied me through much of the night.

Day 3 – Launch Day - Gol Kopjes – Seronera Valley

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Firing Up. Photo by @gwilymcpugh

I have no idea what time the rain stopped but it was pretty wet underfoot. We jumped in the vehicles and made our way to the launch site. Already busy with the balloon laid out and the enormous fans and heaters already blowing. After some lovely spicy coffee and freshly made biscuits on site and a safety briefing from our Captain Mohammed (the first ever Tanzanian Balloon pilot) we were loaded into the basket lying on its side. The basket which could hold up to 12 is split into sections to divide the weight but also offer safe take-off and landing berths for us – kind of space shuttle style. The rest of the space is crucially for the pilot and his double load of fuel for the balloon – 6 tanks as opposed to the normal 3.

As the burners take a break from heating the air, we are given the nod to get in while the basket is on its side and after a quick blast from the captain the balloon rises, rights the basket and before you know it we are airborne, simple as that and the smoothest take off you will ever experience. We climb quickly, a little too quickly for my liking to be honest, and as the ground crew and vehicle shrink to matchbox, we start our expedition across the Serengeti. The winds are lighter at this time of year making our passage steady but as today will be the longest balloon flight done in the Serengeti and the fact the pilot is over virgin territory means we are embracing the safety-first option. I am very happy about this!

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Enjoying the breath taking views

When on, the burners are hot on the head and as you move with the wind there is no breeze. The second thing you notice very quickly is the decibel difference between burners on and off. When on they create quite a racket and when off you feel you are in the most peaceful place as you float gently across what is a relatively green eastern Serengeti. There are pockets of buffalo, Thompson’s Gazelle, impala and zebra. The elephants can be seen at any altitude and before long our captain says he spots lions, a pride of 9 lazing on the plain about a mile away. We start to climb to stay in the breeze that will keep us on course, the aim being to drop in on them like a silent paparazzi bomb. Higher and higher we go as the prey is monitored through binoculars. At about 1200 feet when we are almost over them we start to descend. Whilst you don’t feel the drop your ears do pop and before you know it we are only 100 feet above Simba, Nala & co and suddenly they notice this whacking great alien ship looming over them and they are up and off. One of the braver ones turns for another look as they make off towards where we had come from. Not as stupid as we thought, as without brakes and no steering there is no stopping us for a second look, and we are off to look for the next highlight.

After what feels like about 30 minutes but is just over 2 hours, Captain Mohammed points to our landing site and asks that we take our seats for landing (along with the obligatory tray table and window blinds joke) and we come in for a smooth upright landing. Before we get up from our landing seats I see hands and faces grabbing onto the balloon and as I stand I realise the ground team who have been following us from the road are there to secure the balloon and assist us out. It’s a very slick operation and never at any point did I feel I was at risk. We get out and Captain Mohammed takes us through a short but interesting history of balloon flight. He then pops the champagne (this is part of the history and tradition) and we all toast our flight. What a day, its only 08h30am! We jump into the waiting vehicle and head for breakfast.

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Champagne breakfast

Breakfast. Well that’s another story altogether. The ground crew has set up (in the middle of the Serengeti National Park no less) a full breakfast table complete with proper crockery, cutlery, tablecloth, are serving us fresh coffee and are in the process of making us a traditional full English. Yes please! After breakfast, which Mohammed joins us for, I can’t help but ask him his story which is a great tale of local boy done-good culminating with education in the USA for his balloon license and now Tanzania’s longest-serving pilot. He has just been seconded to start their operation in Ruaha National Park a few hundred kilometres south. Its beautiful to see his smile as today he has flown for the longest time in one flight across an area where he has never flown before. All his normal flights are done further west and a bit further south. It’s beautiful to hear someone so happy about an accomplishment – he is truly beaming.

We head on to the hippo pools after breakfast and then head back to camp, where we find white rum, flown in especially! Some head for a snooze, others relax in camp and very importantly get ready for our next meal! A late-ish lunch is followed by another game walk with Freddy, this one is a bit soggy and whilst the guide does his best my heart’s not in it as the weather closes in. Then its shower time (hot bush showers) before reconvening for dinner as the weather closes in properly. We were fed brilliantly and often by Jean and the Wayo Team. The food could not be faulted, was tasty and plentiful and catered for all manner of our bizarre requests. Bed comes early and all drift off to rain outside and dream about flying across the plains.

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Flight Captain Mohammed

Day 4 – Seronera to Musabi Plains

Arriving at the launch site, the vibe has shifted remarkably. What was once a group steeped in uneasy anticipation has transformed into a gathering of seasoned balloon aficionados. The air is different—been there, done that. The atmosphere is relaxed, with everyone well-acquainted with what lies ahead. I couldn't help but wonder, what could possibly be different today? It's just another two hours in a balloon, right? Oh, how mistaken I was.

Today, we soared over the beating heart of the Serengeti. The wind favoured us at lower altitudes, allowing us to hover just above treetops, offering a breathtaking perspective of the animals from a mere 60 feet in the air. The herds were more expansive, boasting a remarkable variety. Elephants dotted the landscape, lone lions making occasional appearances, and herds of Topi, Hartebeest, and Impala darting across the plains beneath us as we cruised calmly and quietly above. Buffalos grazed and meandered, creating a serene tableau.

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In the air

Around halfway through the journey, we ascended to catch more wind. As we watched a dazzle of zebras proceeding slowly in single file across the plain, little did they know they were heading straight for three lethargic lions, equally oblivious. We found ourselves witness to a potential predator-prey showdown unfolding before our eyes—a genuine cliffhanger. However, our windy mistress propelled us forward, preventing us from lingering long enough to witness the outcome. The suspense hung in the air as we remained on the straight and narrow.

Mohammed executed a near perfect landing once again and off we trooped for our second bush breakfast perfectly set up for us by the ground crew. This time the very tasty options included smashed avocado on toast with chickpeas. Delicious.

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Views from the flight

After breakfast we took packed lunches and headed out of the park in the vehicle to visit a school just out past Fort Ikoma Town, an old German Garrison town where the old fort still stands. The school is part of Wilderness Safaris ‘Children in the Wilderness’ Programme and even though it was a Saturday the kids were all there and keen to see us. Immaculately behaved. Seeing the facilities, or lack of, there are about 600 junior school students, only 6 class rooms and a handful of volunteer teachers. The programme is hoping to help improve all this as well as upgrade their drinking water boreholes, and make sure that kids are able to get to school, have uniforms and get as good a chance at education as they can. They are also educated about the wildlife, conservation, and the importance of these acting in tandem to help create employment and a better standard of living for those living in these remote areas on the boundaries of the national park.

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The school part of Wilderness Safaris ‘Children in the Wilderness’ Programme
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The school part of Wilderness Safaris ‘Children in the Wilderness’ Programme

After a good look around, followed by chatting with teachers and an impromptu, but brilliant, blackboard quiz led by one of the guests, as well as the obligatory sing-song we were heading back into the park. It was late and we had a long way to go so a quick beer stop was made and we headed on. This afternoon/evening drive turned out to be one of the highlights: huge herds of elephants, rubbing trees, then shaking them and ultimately pulling them down before devouring the fruit; enormous towers of very relaxed giraffe who were more than happy to check us out almost more than we were them and then into the park at dusk.

With the light turning to its best and the heavy rain showers managing to stay just in front of us everything seemed to pop out to say hello. Even a couple of porcupines which we seemed to startle and in cartoon-comic fashion seemed to jump up in the air before moving at breakneck speed for cover. The highlight came twenty minutes before arriving in our new camp in the Kirawira area of the park, 3 lionesses casually on the road drinking from a large rain puddle. It was Saturday girls night out. They were so relaxed beside us and under the spotlight. After they’d had their fill they relaxed, one on the road and 2 beside in the short grass. So close that some of felt we could have touched them…or could that have been the beer stop enhancing the senses?

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Game viewing

Day 5 – Musabi Plains – Kirawira

We woke once again to hear lion and hyena chatter at about 04h00 and as we made the short way to the launch site, the sky turning hot ember red – shepherds warning? Not in the slightest. We were blessed with the most magical light, watching the sun come up over the horizon as we climbed away from the launch site. Most of us faced backwards for the first 30 minutes of the flight as we watched the incredible sunrise and the most magical of dawns over the Serengeti. Today was by far and away the most picturesque day of the trip as we floated gently along sandwiched by the course of the famous Grumeti River (the enormous crocs are not so fearsome from up there) to the north and the Varicho then Mumughia Hills to the south. It was a beautiful morning and I am not sure but there may have been a tear shed. We had to do a bit more high-level flying in order to get the wind we wanted to bring us east so we were more about the beautiful surrounds and the light than the animals themselves. However, as it had been quite wet all the animal tracks and trails stood out telling their own tails of journeys and migrations of different sorts. A really beautiful flight which most of the photos and film struggled to do it justice. Once again, I had been blown over by quite how different each flight had been and what was offered.

As we approached the Kirawira area, Mohammed pointed out a vast open sward and looking carefully something was moving. In fact, somethings were moving. The plain was littered with hyena and 4 of them were trying to chase down a zebra. In the open like this the hyena were no match for the zebra’s speed but they persisted and hunted as a team, eventually giving up. By the time this drama was over Mohammed was calling for us to take our seats as we were coming into land, right on the plain pocked with hyenas! They gave us a wide berth but were quite relaxed and didn’t move away, so instead of toasting our flight at the balloon we jumped in the already-there vehicle and toasted them as we watched from the safety of the vehicle and as we did, the plain started to come alive with lots of gazelle, wildebeest and Impala. Some of the hyena thought about it but most were content to bathe in the puddles and bask in the early morning sunshine. The game experiences just kept on giving.

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Puddle bathing hyena. Photo by Gwilym C Pugh @gwilymcpugh

Having worked up a hunger we headed off to breakfast. By now the incredible set up by the balloon team was now just a normal part of the day. Full English please and freshly brewed coffee. As we were finishing off our crispy bacon and scrambled eggs a huge one-tusked bull elephant appeared in the distance and started making his way towards us. To say there was commotion would be a dis-service, for by now we were all seasoned safari experts so photography was the order of the day. It certainly added to our breakfast and there was a little tension in the ranks as he kept coming closer for an inspection, then he lost interest and headed off for another day of super-browsing, just not the www. variety!

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Walking safari

Having spend most of the day in the vehicle the day before the group were keen for a decent walk with the ever-dependent Freddy, so after lunch just as the weather was closing in slightly we set off towards the foot of the Nyakoromo Hills and headed to see what we could find. The beautiful part about this walk is that its highly likely few had walked there previously. Even Freddy had never been here before and you could tell he was even more alert than usual. We saw zebra, topi, warthog exploding out of their dens and random wildebeest herds. It was nice stretching our legs in the beautiful wilderness and seeing the Serengeti from the ground once more as well as spending time with a dung beetle wrestling his ball and his wife. After about 8kms we headed back to camp for a great meal and some fine wine. We were getting used to the early starts and the atmosphere was very relaxed – we were ¾ of the way to Lake Victoria and the excitement was brewing.

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Walking Safari

Day 6 – Kirawira to Lake Victoria

We launched from our camp this morning so another precious 30 minutes in bed were welcomed. Its not every day you roll out of bed and into a balloon! The morning didn’t disappoint, and the light emulated the previous day. Today was going to be amazing, arriving at Lake Victoria welcomed by dozens of local villagers, and achieving our objective of crossing the Serengeti by hot air balloon. The balloon was prepared we hopped aboard and off we went, slowly. Very slowly. We climbed searching for an easterly breeze of which there was little so back down we came – amongst Mohamed’s wind-searching tribulations we were spotting animals left right and centre. The main draw card being a huge 250-strong buffalo herd. Impressive in itself offering a very good reason why these creatures make up part of the Big 5.

At one point the reflective shimmering of the lake was spotted. An oasis in what was an already green and damp Serengeti. But it was our Oasis and we were on our way. Slowly. Too slowly it felt like as progress seemed to be at the same pace of the buffalo herd. After an hour we had done 10kms, we needed to do almost 50kms to get to the lake and we only had an hour of fuel. The wind was non existent and it started to dawn on me that we weren’t going to make it. Our ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ moment! It didn’t seem to faze any of the group as the balloon virtually sat sedentary at any height (at one point I though we were going backwards) and as we used all our fuel Mohamed found a suitable spot to land. Once again (and not surprisingly due to conditions) we had the perfect landing, jumped in the vehicle and made our way to breakfast. Stopping almost briefly at a pride of lion who were gnawing their way through their own breakfast of buffalo.

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Lion spotting. Photo by Gwilym C Pugh @gwilymcpugh

At our final breakfast we were presented with our certificates to say that we flew on the first ever Trans-Serengeti Ballooning Expedition by Mohamed, along with the customary jokes that the certificate did not qualify us to ‘try this at home’ and of course more champagne, scrambled eggs and freshly brewed coffee. It was all suddenly over and we hadn’t made it. At that point, we got word over the radio that our flight had been delayed back to Arusha so we jumped in the vehicle and headed to the western entrance of the park and into the village where we were meant to land so that we could all physically get to Lake Victoria. Job done.

As we high-tailed it back to Grumeti Airstrip for our return flight to Arusha, and for me, onwards to Kilimanjaro Airport as I had a night flight, I reflected on the incredible journey. Sitting in the departures lounge amidst the buzz of fellow travellers editing snapshots from their safaris and sharing tales of conquering Kili, I couldn't help but marvel at our own adventure. While we didn't reach our intended destination, the experience was nothing short of extraordinary. The realization that we embarked on a true expedition, where our success was at the mercy of weather conditions, became crystal clear. Fortunately, the rain held off when it should have, but alas, the wind proved a formidable challenge.

Having been involved in safaris for the past 20 years, I struggle to recall a comparable trip. The allure of the unexplored, the unpredictability, and the sheer exhilaration of the journey have left an indelible mark.

Due to the overwhelming interest and the uniqueness of this trip, we've decided to organize another expedition next year, around the same dates.

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